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AMERICAN GRADUATE: I'm A S.T.A.R. Foundation Teaches Leadership, Encourages Academic Excellence

Cyd Hoskinson

89.9 WJCT is participating in the American Graduate project supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  The goal of American Graduate is to reverse the national drop out crisis by identifying and then addressing the factors that cause students to leave school early.

Dropping out of high school may seem a rash, impulsive thing to do. True, that’s what it might look like, but experts say that’s not what’s going on. Children, they say, don’t simply wake up one morning and, out of the blue, declare they’re done with school.  They’ve been thinking about it for a while.

Dropping out may be the way out of a toxic or abusive home life. It may be a response to peer pressure, or the lack of a role model. Or maybe, just maybe, they don’t have anyone who believes in them enough to make them believe in themselves.

Credit Cyd Hoskinson / WJCT
I'm A S.T.A.R. students learn about college scholarships at a recent meeting.

That’s where the I’m a S.T.A.R. Foundation comes in, says former Duval County school board member and organization founder Betty Burney.

“We tell kids they’re smart, talented and resilient. When kids think that they’re smart, when they know they’re resilient and can bounce back from anything, they’re more apt to graduate,” she says.

Burney’s organization doesn’t just tell middle and high school students they’re smart, talented and resilient.  It gives them opportunities to prove it to themselves. Take 14 year old Raines High School student Larissa Houston.

“I was just supposed to be riding to drop my cousin off and when I went in, I was like, oh, it’s a leadership program that’s going to benefit me in the long run,” she says.?

That was three years ago.

“I used to have an attitude problem. I used to get in trouble a lot and now I’m making a’s and b’s and I have a 3.5 and I haven’t gotten in trouble since I got in this program.”

Houston says one way I’m a S.T.A.R. helped her was by introducing her to different people and showing her that anything’s possible.

“I took a reporting class because I wanted to be an anchor or something, and we had an anchor come from First Coast News," she say. "When people help you, it teaches you a lot about your inner self and it makes you want to change.  “

Houston went from wanting to be on television to wanting to go to the University of  Pittsburgh School of Medicine to become a pediatrician.

“Over time, I was really like I enjoy helping people because I got a joy out of it, and I was like, 'I should help babies and other people because it’s just only right'.”

Helping I’m a S.T.A.R. students learn to help others starts with teaching them to work together, Burney says.

“I’ve asked principals to send me four of their high flyers, people they consider to be leaders," says Burney. "I’ve also asked them to send me four kids who, if nobody was looking, they’d kick them out of their schools because of behavior, grades, anything like that. And so they start branding themselves as part of a group, part of a whole and from there, they work on projects together.”

Over the years, students have taken on everything from bullying and school violence to teen suicide, obesity and now homelessness. There are nearly 2,000 homeless students attending Duval County public schools. This Saturday,  I’m a S.T.A.R. students hope to raise both awareness and money by holding a telethon, a charity walk-run and a celebrity basketball game.

“We’re going to put all of that money together and we’re going to give it to Dr. Vitti for him to give to his homeless students’ office so that any resources those students need, that office can provide for them,” says Burney.

Starting this year, the I’m a S.T.A.R. program will be open to all interested students, not just those referred by a school principal.

Cyd Hoskinson began working at WJCT on Valentine’s Day 2011.